REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
ELIAS S. COOPER
By L. COOPER LANE, M. D.
The life of each illustrious man is a drama, of which the various acts are subjects of the most lively interest, when properly detailed by the faithful historian. The task of the latter, however, is no easy one, in case he attempts to trace those links which, as fractional parts, unite and truly represent the original.
Every great man’s life, if studied comprehensively, reveals a purpose; and the historic painter would fall far short of what art claims from him, if, in the imagery of his picture, he omitted the delineation of glimpses of such a purpose, which, like a sunbeam in the background of a painting, illumines and brings into view each point and feature of the picture. Preëminently, in the life of him whose name appears at the head of this sketch, do we observe such an inspiring aim and continued purpose, that, like glory following virtue as its shadow, “lived with and accompanied him as an ever present genius.” Besides the intellectual endowments with which he was gifted, he possessed those of the heart no less unusual. To depict these, with that simplicity of coloring which comports with nature, is no ordinary undertaking.
ELIAS SAMUEL COOPER was born in the southern part of Ohio, in the Miami Valley, one of the most beautiful sections of that State. His father, Jacob Cooper, emigrated at an early period to the West, from South Carolina.
Every mind, in its growth, finds the elements for its development and ultimate shape, in intrinsic and extrinsic circumstances. A paternal and maternal influence, each strongly defined in character, by precept and example imparted to young Cooper the inceptive germs of mentality, and added to the same that momentum and accuracy of aim which went directly to the destined point.
Of the extrinsic circumstances, which, in many cases, far more than is known, gave shape and feature to the youthful mind, may be mentioned the beautiful landscape of hill and valley in which his early home was retired: these were yet half-covered with those majestic groves— beach, walnut, maple and oak—for which the Ohio valley is famous. During his rambles amidst the quiet seclusion of such scenery, armed with his rifle in quest of game, he formed an attachment for all that pertains to Nature. Amid such scenery and such life, no doubt, were developed those primitive moldings of self-reliance, those habits of independent thought, and power of living within himself, which finally assumed a permanent shape and became the distinguishing traits of his mind in his mature years. Few men have exhibited so large a share as he of that internal self-sustaining power, which enabled him to live independently of those props and supports which are indispensable to most men.
From the example of an older brother who had entered the medical profession, in which he has won and now holds an enviable position, the younger brother was led naturally to embrace the same calling. The selection of this profession was his own choice, and having once chosen it, he gave himself to its study with all the passionate ardor of youthful enthusiasm. The leading textbooks—especially those upon Anatomy—he almost committed to memory; for this branch of medical science he early exhibited a strong predilection, and its almost endless details, which are tiresome and difficult of acquirement by most students, were mastered by him with that pleasure and eagerness which love for a science always lends to its study. A fondness for Human Anatomy can scarcely exist alone—it naturally leads to Comparative Anatomy, its kindred science; hence, we find our young student soon pushing his investigations in the latter quarter, and learning there those laws which, in the humbler grades of animated nature, do not differ from those existing in “the paragon of animals.” With no other guide than his own original and all but intuitive genius, he instituted a series of most interesting and instructive experiments in the litigation of veins and arteries; in reference to the mechanism and function of the various valves; and the observations then made by him, he found subsequently of great value in operative surgery.
The writer has been for several years a medical teacher, and is familiar with the career of many medical students; yet never did he see such ardent devotion to study, and untiring zeal to master the facts of medical science, as were evinced by his subject. Whenever his mind caught a glimpse of the magnificent array of fact and theory; of what had been already accomplished, or what remained to be done; of the list of immortal names which are enshrined in the archives of medical science; it awakened and kept aglow in his bosom an impulse of devotion which only expired with the last vibration of his heart.
His medical collegiate course was commenced at Cincinnati, Ohio, and was completed at St. Louis, Missouri.
His selection of medicine, as a profession, was not at first sanctioned by parental consent; yet the opposition he met with in that quarter never diverted him for a moment from the fond purpose of his heart. His successful career was not long in convincing his father, to whom he was strongly attached, that the young man had made no error in his choice of a profession.
Dr. Cooper commenced the practice of medicine in a small town in Carroll County, Indiana; thence he moved to Danville, Illinois, where, though he had but recently attained his majority, his youth did not prevent him from acquiring a large and lucrative practice. During his stay at Danville, he won his first surgical triumph, in the successful removal of a large portion of the lower jaw of a patient. The self-possession and nerve of which he discovered himself the master on this occasion, made him at once determine to adopt surgery as his specialty and sphere of action. The field, however, which he occupied was far too small to gratify his ambition; and hence he soon decided to move to Peoria, in the same State, a place which gave promise of speedily growing into a large city.
Upon his arrival at Peoria, he commenced a course of private dissections, being convinced that the daily use of the scalpel upon the dead body is the only way of honestly and properly qualifying one’s self for the practice of surgery; and that, as the mariner can be a successful pilot only when, with his own hand, he has dropped the sounding line, and with his own eye noted each depth, and the exact location of each reef and rock, so the surgeon, in order to avert danger, and shun shipwreck on the strand of “death by misapprehension,” must be likewise familiar with the topography of each muscle, nerve, and blood-vessel in the human microcosm. Our subject was fully alive to these facts; and in order to be amply armed and equipped for each and every emergency which might arise, he devoted himself to practical anatomy with the same zeal and untiring enthusiasm which had characterized his earlier studies. He already enjoyed a competency, the fruits of his previous practice, and was enabled to give most of his time for nearly four years to the prosecution of his favorite tasks in dissecting. His motto was that of the old painter, Apelles: Nulla dies sine linea. He allowed no day to pass by, without using his scalpel. His life was then one gala-day of the happiest enthusiasm and devotion to the mastery of the details of the greatest science, without doubt, which has ever interested the human mind, viz: Anatomy, or a knowledge of the constituents, form and relations of the parts composing the human body. Well might Galen, in his pardonable fervor, call it “the noblest hymn which man can chant to the Divinity.”
Some five years after Dr. Cooper’s arrival to Peoria, he established a surgical infirmary, where he received and treated all classes of surgical diseases, including those of the eye and ear. The success which attended his practice quickly spread his reputation far beyond his home, so that within two years after the foundation of this institution, patients flocked to him from all portions of the neighboring States of Kentucky, Indiana and Iowa. It was in the treatment for the removal of deformities of the lower limbs and of the defects of the eye, that he became especially famous.
It was not long, however, before he found that the field which he had chosen was too limited in area; and that, to fully gratify his desire for professional honors and renown, he must select a new location. He debated in his mind whether it were best for him to settle in New York, or to seek one of the cities of the West, which threatened, in a few years, to rival the Metropolis. In the meantime, to more properly qualify himself, and especially, to compare his ideas with those of the masters of the old world, he made a trip to Europe.
Upon his return to America, he decided to select the Pacific Coast as his future home and sphere of action, and soon afterwards he bade farewell to his Eastern friends and the scenes of his many professional triumphs, and departed for San Francisco, where, early in the year 1855, he began the practice of surgery.
The profession of medicine was well represented in San Francisco at that time. To illustrate the difficulties under which a new member of the profession labored at the time of Dr. Cooper’s arrival, in order that the non-professional reader may have a correct understanding of the same, would be, perhaps, impossible. Suffice it to say, that those who first came founded on the mere fact of prior arrival and earlier residence a claim to precedence almost equal to superior caste and prerogative; whence sprung a feeling which viewed with cold distrust, if not positive enmity, any attempt to enter the self-privileged ranks. In such a professional circle, a position like that which was due to Dr. Cooper could be attained by no one who was unwilling or unable to meet, battle with, and overcome a well-organized opposition. In our subject were united those traits which most admirably adapted him to wage such a contest, and carry it to a triumphant issue. Few conquerors have known so well as he how to turn to good account the fruits of their victories. Conciliation, like an attending spirit, was ever present in his heart, and, as it were, held the pen ready to blot out the record and even the memory of each injury which was done him. A most intimate acquaintance with him, and with many incidents in his life, convinced the writer that this trait of character was natural with him, and was not the offspring of policy, which sometimes dictates such a course. It is also true, though it may seem paradoxical, that this conciliatory spirit was coupled with a ready courage for defense, and even for assuming the offensive, when all others means failed; in fact, nature had endowed him most richly with all the resources of both peace and war; yet it was a rule of his life never to resort to the weapons of the latter until every overture of the former had been rejected.
As said, he brought with him to this Coast a fine professional reputation; for in his western home public opinion had long before crowned him with an imperishable wreath of honors, in which were entwined unfading laurels of brilliant surgical achievements. In this, his newly adopted home, he quickly won new honors, equal to, if not eclipsing, those already attained; for with a heart which never knew the impulse of fear, and a genius which was only quickened to bolder and more successful effort the greater the difficulties which it had to encounter, it was not long ere his scalpel, guided by the unerring light of superior anatomical knowledge, made for him a pathway wide and straight to the front and head of the profession. It is probable that no medical man in so brief a period ever attained so wide a reputation;—within five years after his arrival, his services were sought for by patients from every valley and mountain town of this Coast.
Among his achievements may be cited several cases of ovariotomy, an operation which had to this time never performed here; also ligatures of all the larger arteries, including that of the Arteria Imominata, in which his essay proved more nearly a success than any previously recorded case; also the Cæsarian Section; and a great number of operations for the union of disunited fractures by silver ligatures, together with almost countless cases of exsection of diseased bones. To the unprofessional reader it may be remarked, that the older surgeons have as a rule discountenanced all interference with the larger joints; he, however, from a series of operations upon the lower animals, became convinced, that the ideas which obtained in this domain of surgery were erroneous, and at once, with that boldness which is the heirdom only of great minds, he leaped the barriers which old authority had reared around these anatomical regions, and learned with the highest satisfaction that art might safely tread this hitherto consecrated ground; and thus disease be robbed of some of the trophies which previously, without resistance, had been abandoned to it. In this domain of surgical science, his genius had far outstripped the medical world in general; and had years been granted to him to consummate the work which he had planned, he would no doubt have been able to prove the truthfulness of the ideas which he held upon this subject.
Besides the arduous labor which he accomplished in his private practice, he found time to do much more. For example: he was one of the prime founders of the California State Medical Society, and it was in a great measure due to his individual efforts that this society was sustained during its existence. Besides this, he issued a medical journal,—the San Francisco Medical Press,—the columns of which paper were mainly filled with communications from his pen. An examination of this periodical shows the editor to have been a bold and original thinker, and endued with a candor which it would be well if more of the medical profession possessed:—for he was quite as ready to publish the failures as the triumphs of his knife. Besides this publication, he was a contributor to several medical journals published in other sections of the Union. He also retained notes of all his more interesting surgical cases, from which he contemplated drawing material at some future day for a complete work upon surgery.
Soon after settling in San Francisco, he conceived the design of founding a school for the education of young men there, who might desire to fit themselves for the medical profession. Aided by several medical gentlemen, he was the foremost in the establishment of such an institution, viz: the Medical Department of the University of the Pacific, which was organized and commenced operation early in 1859. In this school, he filled the chairs of Anatomy and Surgery. At this institution were graduated a number of young men, who have taken high position in the medical fraternity of this Coast.
As a lecturer he was not endowed with great eloquence, yet his style was eminently impressive and calculated to fasten his ideas in the mind of the student. His delivery was slow, deliberate, earnest; his sentences were not marred or clouded with superfluous verbiage, but a severe conciseness was the distinguished characteristic of his lectures; each sentence was keen and pointed, and of axiom-like brevity.
It was, however, in his character as an operative surgeon, that he possessed talent superior to most other men. The writer, who was present and assisted him in many of his capital operations, can recall no occasion where difficulty, danger or unforeseen complication threw him out of the sphere of his accustomed self-possession; but with a bold heart, an anatomical knowledge that was never in error, a fertility of invention that could turn to good account each unfavorable contingency, an eye that in a moment could compass the whole field, and a hand that was never seen to tremble, he inspired all who saw him on such occasions with the feeling that they were in the presence of a great master. No one ever witnessed his operations, and marked the imperturbable self-reliance with which he wielded the knife, but with a feeling of assurance that he would accomplish the purpose at which he aimed. Besides, a strongly marked and original personality quickly brought his patients into sympathy with him; by virtue of this, as well as the faculty of inspiring his patients with an unwavering belief in their final recovery, he affected cures which few others could have done.
The incessant mental and physical toil to which he subjected himself, began, soon after his arrival in this city, to make serious inroads upon his constitution. Yet the enthusiasm with which he worked, and the deep pleasure which he deprived from his labors, caused him to pass unheeded the monitions, which frequent attacks of illness gave, that he was rapidly ruining his health. In fact, as he told the writer during his last sickness, he had not passed a day entirely free from pain during the three preceding years. Pain, as the physician knows, if long continued, slowly saps the vital energies; and if to this be added the wasting influence of the most severe, self-imposed tasks, we cannot wonder that our subject sank and died in the prime of manhood.
On the 29th of May, 1862, Dr. Cooper was seized with the illness which, with occasional interruptions, marched slowly to the fatal issue, which occurred on the 13th of October, ere he had completed his fortieth year. His disease was an extremely obscure and complicated nervous affection. A few days after its commencement he was attacked with amaurosis, or loss of power of the optic nerve, whereby, in the course of one night he became totally blind. Under these trying circumstances, his fortitude never forsook him, and when it became apparent that his disease must end fatally, with that cool self-possession which had attended and guided him through so many difficulties of his eventful professional career—in fact, showing a genius quite as great for the emergencies of death, as he had exhibited for those of life,—after the arrangement of his affairs, he turned from the world with apparently as much ease as if he never had here an aspiration or a hope.
Near the end of life, he was animated with a strong hope of immortality, and on receiving a visit from a friend to whom he was much attached, he said, though so feeble as to be able to pronounce but a word at a time: “In ten, twenty, thirty or at most, forty years, you will come too, when we will lay our breasts together in an eternal friendship.”
As his disease had presented so many curious and unusual complications, it was his request, a long time previous to his death, that in the event of his not recovering, a post mortem examination should be held upon his body. This request he repeated to the writer but a short period before his death; he wished it done for two reasons: “first, that you and my medical friends may discover the cause of my death, which none of us know; and secondly, that I may not wake up in my grave.”
The examination was made in the manner which he had himself dictated, and the cause of death found to be a wasting of the upper portion of the spinal marrow, and a paucity or defect of blood; and was evidently attributable to overwork, to which for years he had subjected himself.
His death awakened everywhere the profoundest feelings of sorrow, and his premature departure from this life was a public loss which is still felt; for though the profession is well represented in San Francisco, yet no one has since proved himself by both natural and acquired talents, so truly deserving of the name of the GREAT PHYSICIAN, “by Nature’s own right hand annointed.”
Of the numerous obituary notices which at the time of his death appeared in the daily press, the following poem from the pen of T. G. Spear, Esq., of San Francisco, is a beautiful and appropriate tribute to his memory and genius.
“When grief is sobbing o’er life’s withered flower
To which the perfume can no more return,
Words ne’er avail in that o’erwhelming hour,
Nor stay the soul from its eternal bourn;
Yet nature speaks a language from the dust,
Revealing friendly oraclers sublime,
That tell us peace awaits a dying trust
In the supernal life transcending time.
Where art thou, son of science! born with zeal
To cope with ills in life’s corporeal sphere?
Where is thy soul benignant, prone to heal
Or soothe the pangs of prostrate mortals here?
No answer greets us from the stars or waves,
Nor echo back the mountains in reply,
Nor the green garden-valleys, nor their graves—
But, lo! It comes from voiced humanity!
The form you seek is with its withered clay—
Inanimate the good physician lies;
He who recovered lives has passed away—
A shining light in men’s admiring eyes.
His name is on the starry scroll of time,
Enrolled benignly with exsective lore;
Ah ! Lost too soon to learning, race and clime,
His skillful hand shall touch to heal no more !
He found a mission that the angels seek—
To walk ‘midst suffering with the power to cheer—
Recalling health to many a sallow cheek,
And winning back to courage failing fear.
His was the skill of genius, rare and just,
The enthusiast’s fervor with the sage’s sense—
And science whispers from his pregnant dust,
How much she owes his life’s art-love intense.
No snow-crowned peak of knowledge, cold and stern,
With narrowed defiles and an icy heart,
Was he—repelling those who loved to learn
From the broad realms of educated art;
But a fair mountain in a genial sky,
With wooded sides and grassy slopes between,
And mossy springs at which the passerby
Drank, wiser for the grateful Hippocrene.
Brief and brave life ! the warm, high, ample soul,
Poised for new efforts, seeing far and clear,
Has dropped the scalpel, leaving care and dole
For sweet transition to a higher sphere.
Look for his eulogy in work well done,
In truth subserved by a researchful mind,
That fame may spread the triumphs COOPER won
While science is progressive with mankind.”
He was interred in Lone Mountain Cemetery, where his ashes repose beneath a tomb of granite which has the form of an ellipse, surmounted by an obelisk,—the whole being aptly adapted by its durability, severe simplicity of form, and brevity of inscription, to perpetually materialize the leading features of his mind and character; and at the same time, to express by a single word the fond hope of his life,—for on it the passer-by whose eye turns from one of the most sublime landscapes to the resting-place of the illustrious dead, reads only this epitaph:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF ELIAS S. COOPER, SURGEON.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 237-247.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.